An awkward moment at the ongoing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit ensued when Antony Blinken entered the room where the foreign ministers of China and Russia were seated, the three encountering each other as tensions between the countries remain at an all-time high.
The US secretary of state entered the meeting room at the East Asia Summit of the ongoing Asean meetings in Phnom Penh on Friday when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov were already seated.
When Mr Wang entered before the US secretary, he patted the Russian minister on the shoulder and gave him a quick wave before taking his own seat, the Associated Press reported. Mr Lavrov waved back in response.
But when Mr Blinken entered the room, as last among the three officials, there was no eye contact among them. He took his own seat about half-a-dozen chairs away.
While Mr Blinken was seated some six seats away from Mr Lavrov, the Chinese foreign minister was seated farther down the same table as his Russian counterpart.
This came after Russia took a swipe at Mr Blinken, saying Mr Lavrov talked to everyone who was not “hiding” during the Asean gala dinner.
“There was contact with everyone who was not hiding. Sergey Viktorovich’s buttons are all intact, as well as zipper,” AP reported the Russian delegation spokesperson as saying, commenting on the White House’s statements about possible contact between the Russian minister and the US secretary.
Earlier, national security council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said Mr Blinken would seek contact with Mr Lavrov on the sidelines of the Asean ministerial meeting to discuss a prisoner exchange issue.
The issue remains another point of contention between the US and Russia after basketball player Brittney Griner was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison by Moscow in what is believed to be a politically charged case.
Mr Kirby said he had no doubt that if Mr Blinken “has an opportunity to buttonhole Mr Lavrov, he will do so.”
This is also the first time the three men were supposed to take part in the same forum and it comes when tensions between the three countries are at an unprecedented high with the Ukraine war putting Russia and the US at odds and Nancy Pelosi’s much-talked-about and historic visit to Taiwan straining already tense ties between the US and China.
Beijing’s military exercise near Taiwan, a measure it adopted in response to Ms Pelosi’s Taipei visit as it claims the self-governing island as its own has raised security concerns in the region.
Ahead of the Phnom Penh talks, the US state department indicated Mr Blinken had no plans to meet one-on-one with either man during the course of the meetings.
On Thursday, China cancelled a foreign ministers’ meeting with Japan to protest a statement from the Group of 7 nations that said there was no justification for Beijing’s military exercises, which virtually encircle Taiwan.
“Japan, together with other member of the G-7 and the EU, made an irresponsible statement accusing China and confounding right and wrong,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing.
When Japan’s foreign minister Hayashi Yoshimasa began to speak on Friday at the East Asia Summit, both Mr Lavrov and Mr Wang walked out of the room, according to an AP report quoting an unnamed diplomat in the room.
Prak Sokhonn, foreign minister of Cambodia, which is the chair of this year’s summit, said he hoped the talks would help increase the communication between the delegates amid heightened tensions. However, he also acknowledged this year’s situation is unprecedented.
“Every year we have our set of challenges to address but I have to say that never before, not like this year, have we been confronted with so many perils at the same time,” he said before the closed-door talks.
Additional reporting by agencies